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  • Translator: Peter van de Ven Reviewer: Mile Živković

  • If in rush-hour traffic, you can remain perfectly calm;

  • if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places

  • without a twinge of jealousy;

  • if you can love everyone around you unconditionally;

  • and if you can always find contentment just where you are,

  • then you're probably ...

  • a dog.

  • (Laughter)

  • Right?

  • We hold ourselves to these unrealistic standards of perfection,

  • and then we judge ourselves when we don't live up to them.

  • The thing is,

  • we're not supposed to be perfect;

  • perfection isn't possible.

  • But transformation is.

  • All of us have the capacity to change, to learn, and to grow,

  • no matter what our circumstances.

  • As a professor and scientist, I study how people change,

  • how people transform,

  • and one of the most effective vehicles I've found is: mindfulness.

  • My own journey into mindfulness was unexpected.

  • When I was 17, I had spinal fusion surgery,

  • a metal rod put in my spine.

  • I went from a healthy active teenager,

  • to lying in a hospital bed, unable to walk.

  • During the many months of rehabilitation,

  • I tried to figure out how to live in this body

  • that could no longer do what it used to.

  • The physical pain was difficult,

  • but worse was the fear and the loneliness,

  • and I simply didn't have the tools to cope.

  • So I began searching for something that could help,

  • and eventually, this search led me to a monastery in Thailand

  • for my first meditation retreat.

  • At the monastery,

  • the monks didn't speak much English and I didn't speak any Thai,

  • but I understood mindfulness had something to do

  • with paying attention in the present moment.

  • My only instruction was to feel the breath going in and out of my nose.

  • So I began: one breath, two breaths -

  • my mind wandered off; I brought it back.

  • One breath, two breaths, it wandered again,

  • sucked into the past or lost in the future,

  • and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't stay present.

  • This was frustrating because I thought meditation was supposed to feel like this,

  • and instead, it felt more like this.

  • (Laughter)

  • Being present isn't so easy.

  • In fact, check it out for yourself.

  • I've been speaking for about three minutes;

  • have you noticed your mind has wandered?

  • All of our minds wander.

  • Research from Harvard shows

  • the mind wanders, on average, 47 percent of the time.

  • 47 percent.

  • That's almost half of our lives that we're missing,

  • that we're not here.

  • So part of mindfulness

  • is simply learning to train the mind in how to be here,

  • where we already are.

  • Like right now; let's practice together.

  • Allow your eyes to close, and just feel your feet on the floor.

  • Wiggle your toes,

  • and sense your whole body sitting here.

  • Softening the face;

  • softening the jaw;

  • and notice that you're breathing.

  • Feeling the breath as it naturally flows in and out of the body.

  • Just being here.

  • And as you're ready,

  • taking a deeper breath, in and out, allowing your eyes to open.

  • So ...

  • back at the monastery, I was trying hard to do just this,

  • to just be present.

  • But no matter how hard I tried, my mind kept wandering off.

  • And at this point, I really started to judge myself:

  • "What is wrong with you? You're terrible at this."

  • "Why are you even here? You're a fake."

  • And then not only was I judging myself, I started judging everyone,

  • even the monks:

  • "Why are they just sitting here? Shouldn't they be doing something?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Thankfully, a monk from London arrived, who spoke English,

  • and as I shared with him my struggles, he looked at me and said,

  • "Oh dear, you're not practicing mindfulness,

  • you're practicing judgment, impatience, frustration."

  • And then he said five words that have never left me:

  • "What you practice grows stronger."

  • What you practice grows stronger.

  • We know this now with neuroplasticity.

  • Our repeated experiences shape our brain.

  • We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections,

  • based on repeated practice.

  • For example, in the famous study of London taxi drivers,

  • the visual spatial mapping part of the brain is bigger, stronger.

  • They've been practicing navigating the 25,000 streets of London all day long.

  • When you look at the brains of meditators,

  • the areas related to attention, learning, compassion,

  • grow bigger and stronger.

  • It's called cortical thickening:

  • the growth of new neurons in response to repeated practice.

  • What we practice grows stronger.

  • The monk explained to me that if I was meditating with judgment,

  • I was just growing judgment;

  • meditating with frustration, I'm growing frustration.

  • He helped me understand that mindfulness isn't just about paying attention,

  • it's about how we pay attention:

  • with kindness.

  • He said it's like these loving arms that welcome everything,

  • even the messy, imperfect parts of ourselves.

  • He also pointed out that we're practicing all the time,

  • moment by moment,

  • not just when we're meditating, but in every moment;

  • we're growing something in every moment.

  • So the question really becomes: what do you want to grow?

  • What do you want to practice?

  • When I left Thailand, I wanted to keep practicing mindfulness,

  • and I wanted to understand it scientifically.

  • So I began a PhD program, eventually became a professor,

  • and I've spent the past 20 years

  • investigating the effects of mindfulness across a wide range of populations,

  • including veterans with PTSD, patients with insomnia,

  • women with breast cancer, stressed out college students,

  • high-level business executives,

  • and over and over, the data showed two key things.

  • First,

  • mindfulness works, it's good for you.

  • It strengthens our immune functioning,

  • it decreases stress, decreases cortisol, helps us sleep better.

  • When we published our first research, back in '98,

  • there were only a handful of studies.

  • Now there are thousands of studies

  • showing the beneficial effects of mindfulness.

  • It's good for us.

  • The second thing we learned was quite unexpected.

  • Almost all the people we were working with,

  • regardless of their age, their gender, their background,

  • were talking about the same thing.

  • This underlying sense of "I'm not good enough,"

  • "I'm not okay," "I'm not living this life right."

  • This tremendous self judgment and shame.

  • And we all know what they were talking about

  • because shame is universal; all of us feel it.

  • And worse, we have this mistaken belief

  • that if we shame ourselves, if we beat ourselves up,

  • we'll somehow improve.

  • And yet, shame doesn't work.

  • Shame never works; it can't work.

  • Literally, physiologically, it can't work because when we feel shame

  • the centers of the brain that have to do with growth and learning

  • shut down.

  • This fMRI shows the brain on shame.

  • What happens is

  • the amygdala triggers a cascade of norepinephrine and cortisol

  • to flood our system, shutting down the learning centers

  • and shuttling our resources to survival pathways.

  • Shame literally robs the brain

  • of the energy it needs to do the work of changing.

  • And worse, when we feel shame, we want to avoid it,

  • so we hide from those parts of ourselves we're ashamed of,

  • the parts that most need our attention.

  • It's just too painful to look at them.

  • So what's the alternative?

  • Kind attention.

  • First, kindness gives us the courage

  • to look at those parts of ourselves we don't want to see.

  • And second, kindness bathes us with dopamine,

  • turning on the learning centers of the brain

  • and giving us the resources we need to change.

  • True and lasting transformation requires kind attention.

  • The monk's words echoed in my ears:

  • mindfulness isn't just about attention, it's about kind attention.

  • This attitude of kindness wasn't just a footnote or something nice to have,

  • it was an essential part of the practice,

  • a part of mindfulness that's so often overlooked.

  • So my colleagues and I developed a model of mindfulness

  • that explicitly includes our attitude and our intention,

  • as well as our attention.

  • All three parts working together synergistically.

  • Put simply:

  • mindfulness is intentionally paying attention with kindness.

  • We used this model

  • while working at the veterans hospital for a group of men with PTSD.

  • I was shocked to learn

  • that we lose more veterans to suicide, each year, than to combat.

  • Our soldiers carry so much pain and shame.

  • So the intention of the mindfulness group was to cultivate this kind attention,

  • even for the seemingly unforgivable parts of ourselves.

  • There was one man in the group who never said a word, never looked up.

  • Two months passed, he seemed unreachable.

  • And then one day he raised his hand, and he said: "I don't want to get better.

  • What I saw in the war, what I did, I don't deserve to get better."

  • He then looked down at the floor and proceeded to tell us in great detail

  • what he had seen, and what he had done.

  • And I can still feel the horror of what he shared

  • and how his shame filled the room.

  • I looked up to see how the other men were responding,

  • and there was no judgment, only compassion on their faces.

  • I invited him to look up and to witness this compassion and this kindness.

  • As he slowly looked around the room, his face began to soften,

  • and in his eyes there was hope,

  • the possibility that he wasn't just his past actions,

  • that he could choose differently now, that he could change.

  • This may be one of the most important things I've learned.

  • It's that transformation is possible, for all of us, no matter what.

  • And it requires kind attention, not shame.

  • And this kind attention takes practice; it takes lots of practice.

  • I want to share with you a simple practice that continues to help me.

  • Some years ago, I was going through a difficult divorce,

  • and I'd wake up every morning with this pit of shame in my stomach.

  • My meditation teacher suggested an explicit practice of kind attention.

  • She said, "How about saying, 'I love you, Shauna,' every day."

  • I thought to myself, "No way;" it felt so contrived.

  • She saw my hesitation and suggested,

  • "How about to just saying, 'Good morning, Shauna.'

  • Oh, and try putting your hand on your heart when you say it;

  • it releases oxytocin, it's good for you, you know."

  • She knew the science would win me over.

  • So the next day, I put my hand on my heart,

  • I took a breath and said, "Good morning, Shauna,"

  • and it was kind of nice.

  • I continued to practice,

  • and a month later when I saw her, I admitted how helpful it had been.

  • "Wonderful. You've graduated," she said,

  • "Now the advanced practice:

  • 'Good morning. I love you, Shauna.'"

  • So the next day,

  • I put my hand on my heart, anchored myself and said,

  • "Good morning. I love you, Shauna."

  • I felt nothing,

  • except maybe a little ridiculous, but definitely not love.

  • But I kept practicing because, as we know, what we practice grows stronger.

  • And then one day,

  • I put my hand on my heart, took a breath, "Good morning. I love you, Shauna,"

  • And I felt it.

  • I felt my grandmother's love, I felt my mother's love,

  • I felt my own self-love.

  • I wish I could tell you

  • that every day since then has been this bubble of self-love,

  • and I've never felt shame or judgment again,

  • and that's not true.

  • But what is true is this pathway of kind attention has been established,

  • and it's growing stronger every day.